Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Preparing for a Banjo Contest

Recently I had an opportunity to judge the Smithville Jamboree.  After sitting through nearly two hundred entrants' performances I decided to resurrect an old post I had made on the Banjo Hangout.  I've tweaked it a little and cleaned it up.  Hopefully, you'll find something useful when you're preparing for a contest.

Once upon a time I had written and saved a couple of long diatribes regarding things not to do at contests.  However, because of your apparent good fortune, they seem to be lost in cyberspace.

One day I might try to recreate some of that, but until I get really bored I'm not going to even try. However, I can offer some common sense ideas that may or may not make a difference.

Before I start, I'd like to preface this with the information that I have, indeed, played quite a few contests. I've won a handful, and totally stunk up even more. In the process I learned some things. I've also had several opportunities to judge quite a few contests too, and hopefully I can offer you something from the judges perspective.

Choose some songs from your repertoire (four or five would be ideal). Make sure those tunes are ones you know upside down and backwards.  I know that seems obvious, but I've seen contestants play tunes they just didn't know well enough to play under the scrutiny of judging.

The question regarding what songs to play comes up a lot. There's no right or wrong here, but there are considerations. Have the judges heard this song a blue-zillion times? If so, I'd probably skip that one. Is it something you don't already know? I'd skip that too. The last thing you need is to have a tune that is "new". I look for tunes that are "different" but not strange. I want the judges to be able to identify it. There are plenty of other things to think about here - and as you get more involved you'll think of plenty reasons to ditch tunes, add others, etc.. Again, I'd hope that the songs you select are ones you're already very comfortable with.

Now that you've picked out your tunes you'll need original arrangements. No, not from that tab book... no, not that recording either - put the video away too. You didn't think you could sneak that note for note arrangement of Sammy Shelor's Earnest T Grass by a competent judge did you? The judges will know. They do listen to stuff. Most of them are students of the music - just like you. That means they're still admiring and listening to all the cool players. Uh oh, can't use someone's canned break... now what? Create your own. Sorry. No easy answers here. You just have to do it. It takes time, it takes effort.  It takes getting around players much better than you and listening to their arrangements and figuring out what you can assimilate without being a clone.

Now... do that 3 or 4 more times.

Once you've got the tunes arranged and practiced, keep polishing. Play them a lot - it's more than you think - once a day ain't nearly enough. You need to play them over and over. Record them. Listen to the recordings. Practice with the metronome. Listen. Practice, practice, practice. Play for friends, neighbors, the cat, play them for anyone that will listen. Heck, come play them for me; I'd be glad to make you nervous and critique your playing.

Day of the Contest

Sign up and get a copy of the rules. Read the rules. It's a good idea to follow them - enforced or not. I've seen players win and lose on technicalities. Don't be a technicality. Know when and where you're supposed to be. Relax - whatever it takes here is fine by me for the most part.  Hopefully you'll have practiced and played enough that you won't be worried or nervous about the songs. You will be nervous about the contest though; that's to be expected. Try not to barf.

Some people like to check out the other competitors; I never do. Last thing I need to do is psyche myself out. I generally stay by myself and warm up. If you have someone accompanying you, warm up with them.

Draw your number. Get called. Go pick. Play what you rehearsed, and try not to bore, irritate, or annoy the judges. You're done now. You can exhale. Go hangout with the other folks. Check out the jams, watch the contest, whatever.

Did you win? Did you place? Did you bomb? Who cares? What I hope you did was have fun. That's that main thing. Play the contests because they're fun. Play them because you like to play. Don't worry too much about the outcome. That sort of thing isn't too productive. There's not a contest that goes by that someone doesn't complain about the outcome. It's not always like you expect it, but if you went in expecting exact science from a banjo contest, well, shoot, you get what you deserve.

Oh, don't be a whiner - especially to the judges. I love talking to the competitors after the contest - especially when they're genuinely looking for help or advice. Do remember that judges are people - like you. (I remember an event where a mother of a player gave me serious grief because she was convinced that I didn't have a clue about music, because if I did I'd have certainly given much higher marks to her kid... sigh.)

Just be a good sport.  Make friends with as many people as you can, and practice a bunch for next year!

tl;dr - Play Something You Know!